Recapping the Women’s Olympic 10K Marathon Swim

ana marcela cunha
Ana-Marcela Cunha

The Olympic 10K marathon swim is a unique animal, more akin in some respects to pool swimming than its wild, channel-crossing sibling. But a supreme level of swimming talent and skill was on full display in the very warm waters of Odaiba Marine Park in Tokyo on 4 August 2021 during the women’s 10K marathon swim.

Twenty-five swimmers from around the globe undertook seven laps of the 1.5-kilometer course, a grueling mental challenge made doubly hard by very warm conditions. Water temps topped 28 degrees C (82.4 degrees F).

Unsurprisingly, Brazil’s Ana Marcela Cunha, closed the deal and claimed gold in the event. Cunha has been a fixture at World Championships, winning five titles so far. Sharon van Rouwendaal of the Netherlands, who was the 2016 Olympic champion, finished second. Australian Kareena Lee took the bronze medal.

Though she was slow to dominate the race, Cunha swam smart, hanging with the lead pack for all but the final kilometer, when she upped the pace and dared the rest of the field to follow. She comfortably overtook van Rouwendaal, who had led for most of the event.

The last few hundred yards of the race were a duel to the finish, with van Rouwendaal attempting to answer Cunha’s advance and several other swimmers vying for medals. Haley Anderson and Ashley Twichell of the United States stayed in contact with the podium hunt-scrum in the last few hundred meters, but finished in 6th and 7th place respectively.

It was a clean, well-executed race by all the competitors, to be sure. But from this reporter’s perspective, that textbook outcome isn’t the real story. No, more attention should be paid to Alice Dearing of the United Kingdom, who deserves a big shout-out for her 19th place finish. Though Dearing told reporters after the swim that she was “pretty broken,” and disappointed in her finish, to this reporter’s eye, she’s a true champion in and out of the water.

Dearing is the first Black swimmer to represent Great Britain at the Olympic Games. In the run up to these controversy-plagued Tokyo Games, Dearing was outspoken against FINA’s non-sensical ban of the Soul Cap and other swim caps that better accommodate natural Black hair. A lead ambassador for the Black Swimming Association, a nonprofit advocating for equity in aquatics in the UK, Dearing has already set her sights on qualifying for the Paris Games in 2024, a mere three years away. 

I personally can’t wait to see what she gets up to next.

— Elaine K. Howley